Friday, December 23, 2016

The Problem With Equality

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…

-        Declaration of Independence, American colonies against Britain

Liberté, égalité, fraternité

-        The national motto of France; origins in the French Revolution

The ideas behind this sentiment had origin in the Enlightenment and even before with, for example, John Locke.

Enlightenment included a range of ideas centered on reason as the primary source of authority and legitimacy, and came to advance ideals such as liberty, progress, tolerance, fraternity, constitutional government, and separation of church and state.

It is obvious, by mere observation, that all men are most certainly not created equal: some gifted in different ways, some gifted not at all.  This was not necessarily the point of the idea of equality.  Conceptually, at least, “equality” was considered equality under the law.  This ideal did not last long.  For example, as early as the Jacobin period of the French Revolution, it was enforced as equality of results.  The “National Razor” (aka the guillotine) enforced this version of equality.

This ideal also did not last in the United States – there is certainly not equality under law; instead, virtually all of the population suffers under the weight of countless laws, regulations, and taxes designed to move toward equality of results.

Does it have to be this way?  Is it inevitable? 

The Enlightenment was a push back against the prevailing social order in Europe, the social order of the Middle Ages: kings, nobles, serfs; authority of the Church; conflicting spheres of power and authority; a social order of a greatly decentralized political system. 

All men are created equal: it all sounded good on paper.  I have spent much of my life almost in worship of the phrase; even at this moment, I struggle with questioning it.  Like many political theories, good on paper does not mean good in the real world.

Every central authority which follows its natural instincts likes and favours equality; for equality more than anything else facilitates the working of this sort of authority, and extends and assures it.

Alexis de Tocqueville

What was the prevailing authority that needed to be broken?  Call it the authority of the clan leader, the natural aristocrat – which, at its root, had family.  The king had no authority over members of the clan; he only had authority over the clan leader – and even in this, only the authority that the clan leader granted to the king. 

The idea of equality broke this relationship: slowly but surely, equality gave to the king power over not only the clan leader, but also the son and the daughter; slowly but surely, equality required that the authority of the clan leader be eliminated: after all, if all men are equal, why should the clan leader be more equal?

This idea of equality was welcomed by the masses – a chance to break down the authority of the natural aristocracy.  They welcomed this “secular work of destruction.”  The result?  A great centralization: the displacement of many private dominions by one general dominion. 

In addition to the initial euphoria, the people were co-opted into this centralization by the gaining of power – being invited into the administration; a “statocracy” of individuals who gain their position via the state to replace the natural aristocracy.

The kings, who are most set on destroying the feudal baronies, are also the best friends of the merchants, the bankers, and the master manufacturers.

We see this latter phenomenon in the world around us: would Krugman, Bernanke, any number of the below-average entertainers, CEOs of the major banks or industrial conglomerates gain such a position or status without the apparatus of the state pushing them to the fore and otherwise ensuring their success?  They know to whom they owe their position.  They act accordingly.

As offered by de Jouvenel, a ship owner is not the chieftain of a gang of sailors; he merely employs their labor, to be made available to the king when demanded.  A banker is assigned to amass wealth that can be used in service of the king when required.

Where will it end? 

In the destruction of all other command for the benefit of one alone – that of the state. 

In each man’s absolute freedom from every family and social authority, a freedom the price of which is complete submission to the state. 

In the complete equality as between themselves of all citizens, paid for by their equal debasement before the power of their absolute master – the state. 

In the disappearance of every constraint which does not emanate from the state, and in the denial of every pre-eminence which is not approved by the state.

Read each sentence one by one, and consider each carefully.  It cannot be denied that this is reality under the state; it also cannot be denied that it is a pathetic, miserable reality for all of us who are now “created equal.”

When “perfect” is not held as the ideal, is this “equality,” led by statocrats, a better condition than what was before – a great, decentralized society organized by natural aristocrats?


In a word, it ends in the atomization of society, and in the rupture of every private tie linking man and man, whose only bond is now their common bondage to the state.  The extremes of individualism and socialism meet: that was their predestined course. (Emphasis added.)

Unless one believes man can live without social connection to other men….

Communism has crashed on this shore. There are some libertarians – both on the left and those who believe pure libertarian theory can be applied to society of humans – who have yet to learn this lesson.

Libertarianism in theory is decentralization in practice. 


  1. Thanks for discussing de Jouvenel. The man is an intellectual titan of the highest order and his ideas are profoundly important.

    I was introducted to him via Moldbug, who is an entertaining and insightful writer in his own right and makes his own attempt at a solution to the societal & politica dilemmas de Jouvenel outlines.

  2. And the only real Progress for all mankind in a secular sense is the discovery and tolerance of unfettered markets coupled with a sound understanding of property rights. Not the perverted twisted rights borne of the French Revolution and permeated into the West by Democratic Socialism/Progressivism.

  3. Wow!!!Extra stocking stuffer for you!!
    Thanks for introduction to de Jouvenel.

    Owhyee Cowboy

  4. Equality is a mathematical notion. The thing on the left side of the equal sign is in some way the same as the thing on the right side.

    I suspect what Jefferson et. al. were talking about with respect to equality, was not that peon should be equal before the law to another peon, but that peon should be equal before the law to the ruler. A nice sentiment, but not very well connected to reality.

    I'm a bit doubtful that this kind of equality drives centralization of power very much. After all, nobody really cares much if an Oregon peon is legally equal to a California peon; in fact any politician who promised to make Oregon peons legally equal to California peons would be very unpopular. Power is very centralized now, but local rulers or even just cops in Oregon are still not equal to Oregon peons; and in fact there is less equality between Oregon peons and those rulers in federal government, than there was when little power resided in the federal government. Almost the whole point of getting power is to be unequal.

    I suppose you could say that, for example, the Americans with Disabilities Act was a way of making California peons legally equal to Oregon peons, but it wasn't really sold that way. It was sold as a way of making life better for the disabled. What drove centralization in that case was the old notion of everybody living at the expense of everybody else, not that everybody should be equal.

    I suppose there are several causes to the centralization of power, but if legal equality is one, it doesn't seem a very strong one.

  5. I should add that the mathematical notion of equality is about "is", not "ought". When people adapted that to the political arena, they implicitly changed the "is" to "ought"; quite a fundamental difference (and one that makes me think it was a mistake to adopt a mathematical notion in the political sphere at all). When we note that the Declaration's "all men are created equal" is nonsensical on its face, what we are really saying is that it should instead say, "all men should be equal before the law". I suppose Jefferson wanted to make a stronger-sounding statement, but by choosing "is" language over "ought" language and by leaving out the qualification "before the law", he simply entered the realm of error.

  6. Separation of church and state in theory has meant union of aggressive secularism and state in practice. While Christians objecting to the moral relativism of the government schools are free to send their kids elsewhere, they may not forego tribute to the government schools. Secular democrats blandly embrace this arrangement, even as they affect consternation at the jizya imposed by Muslim rulers on their dhimmis.

  7. James Madison warned in Federalist Paper No. 10, The Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection, “Theoretic politicians, who have patronized this species of government [pure democracy], have erroneously supposed that by reducing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights, they would, at the same time, be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions.”

  8. No, people are not equal, not in any physical fact.

  9. A long dead thread, but a funny story. I keep hearing Alex Jones reference the "Jacobite" this and the "Jacobite" that. I finally started searching for what he meant by that since he kept saying "look it up."

    So every search kept coming up with the Jacobites of Great Britain and Ireland, and none of it talked about their political philosophy. Furthermore, the information about modern Jacobites referred to them a crazies.

    Then I searched for “what does alex jones mean by Jacobite” and about 13 results down up pops “Jacobin”! Ah, I say. I click on it and discover that what I kept hearing as “Jacobite” (too much Outlander, I blame my wife) was actually “Jacobin”!

    Mystery solved. Too bad no one will ever read this comment and get a hearty chuckle out of it.